Arthur Hailey’s novels have a common thread running through them all – they are astonishingly well researched and they are never just one narrative, but numerous seemingly unconnected events that are occurring simultaneously until they all came together in the end, in a final climax, all tied neatly together in one beautiful and coherent story.
Take his Airport for instance. A number of parallel narratives are running side by side. A jobless suicidal loser is getting ready to blow himself up inside an airliner while it is over the Atlantic, so his wife can get the insurance payout and he can ‘redeem’ himself in her eyes. A just landed airliner has taken a wrong turn taxiing in and now it is stranded with its tail sticking into the busiest runway, blocking traffic. A tiny municipality abutting a runway is threatening to sue the airport authorities because pilots are refusing to follow hazardous noise abatement procedures which require the aircraft to bank steeply after take-off, increasing the chances of a stall. The airport manager and his wife are on the verge of separating. A married airline pilot is fucking the stewardess. The worst snowstorm in history is threatening to shut down the airport….. every thread is a story in itself and a deliciously delightful one.
To say that Arthur Hailey was a master storyteller would be an understatement. He was a genius.
Though he began writing way back in the late 1950s, that distinctive storytelling style first emerged in 1962, at the height of the Cold War. That was an era when every bald guy with slavic features, a glass eye and a fluffy white cat had the last name ‘Blofeld’ and every author covetted the nom de plume ‘Le Carre’.
This piece refers to the first of Hailey’s bonanza of insanely popular bestsellers, his 1962 Cold War drama In high places, where Hailey paints a chilling scenario. Let me start the chills for you –
North America is preparing to defend itself against an imminent nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union, an act of aggression brought on by a paranoid ultra right-wing nationalist Russia which sees its communist utopia crumbling under the onslaught of capitalism the world over.
World War-3 is imminent. Hailey envisages the attack to come over the north Pole, which means that a barrage of ten to twenty R-36 Vovoda ICBMs will cross Canadian airspace, before striking the US. Each reentry vehicle will be carrying a single 25-Megaton thermonuclear warhead, 2500 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
Of course, in the Soviet scheme of things, a 25-megaton device is peanuts. Just the previous year they had detonated the 50-Megaton ‘Kuz’kina Mat’ …
The story goes that when the Americans tested what was for them, their most powerful thermonuclear device, an H-Bomb that was code-named Castle Bravo and had an yield of 15 megatons, the Soviets gave it a name of their own – Kuzka, a derogatory reference commonly used in Russia those days, roughly translated in English as ‘pipsqueak’.
Khrushchev is reported to have sneered at the American test derisively at a Politburo meeting, “My obirayemsya pokazat’ im Kuz’kina mat!” (That’s it? 15 Megatons? Well we are going to show them Kuzka’s mother).
And the 50-Megaton Kuz’kina Mat was born.
Just a handful of Kuz’kina Mats can annihilate large portions of North America, but the author doesn’t think they will be deployed, since they are 27-ton airdrop type bombs that have to be dropped from subsonic Tupolev-95 bombers – sitting ducks for the US Air Force’s new Lockheed F-104 Starfighters.
The Soviet missile barrage will be swift – 23 times the speed of sound kind of swift. However, it is still expected to give America around 10 minutes to respond – enough time to launch their interceptor missiles. Since the Soviet warheads are of the contact-detonation type, America doesn’t need the interceptors to be nuclear tipped.
The results of numerous simulations (done on gigantic IBM mainframe computers of the day) that the Americans have shared with Canada show that the intercepts will occur over some of the most industrialized and densely populated regions of Canada – Quebec and Ontario to the east, Alberta in the mid-west and British Columbia on the western seaboard.
The Soviets are also expected to target food sources – Canada’s vast mid-western farmlands that seem to stretch to eternity. A sure way to ensure the demise of a nation is to contaminate its farms. If the intercepts go through as planned, the central Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be hit with fallout from the American intercepts of R-29 MIRVs with multiple 750 Kiloton warheads. And in order to ensure that every square mile is blanketed with heavy fallout, the detonation of these warheads is going to be ‘airburst’, set off automatically at a height of 10000 feet.
It’s population decimated, industry shattered and farmlands rendered untouchable for at least a century, Canada will cease to exist.
The US will not go unscathed but the damage, in the form of contaminated landmass, is expected to be marginal. If at all, only the far corners in the North-West (around Washington state) and the North-East (around Vermont and Maine) will be marred by those deadly wind-blown white flakes that folks will mistake for snow. This is because the wind patterns over Canada are almost invariably lateral – in the east-west direction.
Most major industrial cities and coastal population centers in the US shall remain untouched. One analysis shows that below the 35th parallel, America won’t suffer any radioactive fallout at all.
The Canadian military has always been a toothless, token force and now, as the gloves begin to come off, it looks as if Canada might look like a statistic of worldwide collateral damage in some fresh faced political science nerd’s PhD thesis.
There is of course NORAD – North American Aerospace Defense Command – a new joint US/Canadian defense initiative that is supposed to ward off an airborne assault. But NORAD is still nascent, having been made operational only a year earlier. NORAD’s base of operations (a sprawling, heavily fortified underground bunker) is still under construction, deep inside the Cheyenne Mountain, a 3000-metre triple peak outside Colorado Springs, in Colorado, US. NORAD is not yet capable of staving off a thermonuclear first strike so massive that it goes beyond the pale of human understanding.
Now the good news (if you can call it that). To prevent Canada’s demise, ‘In High Places’ delivers a chillingly delicious twist……
America has made Canada a Corleonesque offer – one that Canada cannot refuse. America will annex Canada as an integral part of the US (it’s 51st state) immediately becoming world’s largest country in terms of both, landmass as well as mineral wealth. In return, those interceptor missile batteries will be stationed along the Northern Canadian Tundra. Now the intercepts shall happen over mostly uninhibited, ice-bound wasteland. The polar bear and caribou population will be decimated, but then shit happens. And thanks again to the lateral wind patterns, hopefully most of Canada will be spared the fallout.
If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil your fun. As is typical of Arthur Hailey, In High Places has many parallel narratives running side by side, each fascinating in its own right, all of them inexorably advancing toward the central Cold War background story and the climax.
Taken in the context of the present tensions in the world, I was wondering if Arthur Hailey’s dark vision could come true today. Would we Canadians find ourselves on the brink of annihilation, if for some reason, a year into his Presidency, Trump and Putin fell out and Russia decided it had had enough of the sanctions regime.
The Americans can bully an Iran, a Syria, a North Korea, India or Pakistan with sanctions, but Russia? No way. If that embargo and sanctions crap continues too long, North Americans may well find themselves one day, crouching under the dining room table, shortly after kissing their asses goodbye.
But what if we Canadians did face annihilation and the only choice left was annexation by a Trump-governed America? We would be in a nasty pickle. For that, Canada has itself to blame, for never attempting to go nuclear and never trying to build up its own independent military with massive firepower (all of which would have been a cinch, given Canada’s enormous wealth).
Maybe annexation will happen anyway, with or without any external threat. Even before Trump happened, the US annexation of Canada (by force, if required) had already been a reality waiting to happen. A bill has long been tabled in the US Congress, called ‘Bill to Annex Canada’.
Guess when that bill – which is still an active proposal but has not yet been passed – was introduced?
(to be continued…….)
ps: Don’t go away, if you want to know just how far the US is prepared to go, to annex Canada. Watch out for Part-2